An advantage of my remarkable tardiness in reading Michael Lewis’s 2004 classic look at how a different approach to understanding data helped a low-budget team to regularly out-perform its bigger budget and more glamorous rivals is that the passage of several more years helps put the achievements of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, into more perspective.
Looking back now, his record has many parallels with that of Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger. Both took financially restricted teams to great success by introducing new ways of thinking about their game and sports performance – until their better-financed rivals started copying them. Then their financial restrictions started biting again and both their teams have since not had sustained success, with patches of poor performance even resulting in many beginning to doubt whether they still have what it takes. (Those with an interest in politics might even find a parallel with the Liberal Democrats here too.)
Michael Lewis’s account of Billy Beane’s approach is laced with basketball terminology, and so can be a struggle to follow at times if you’re not already very familiar with the sport. But it’s worth doing so for the story it tells of how Billy Beane learned from his own failures as a player – on paper he was set to be a star but in practice those physical attributes never quite turned into stellar performances – to see baseball in a different light, valuing different ways of measuring the potential of players.
That different perspective led to a desire for a different set of statistics to understand the game, which meant Beane was one of the first of those involved in running a baseball team to tap into the new numbers that fans of the game had been turning to. What became known as sabermetrics judges the performance of baseball players by different statistics from tradition, helping managers like Beane to identify previously under-rated future stars and recruit them at low cost, getting far better value for money than the big name traditional signings of their rivals. Wegner too had great success identifying under-rated and relatively cheap players, and like Beane also had a knack for letting stars go with far less impact on the team than pundits feared at the point of sale.
Beane however had it harder than Wenger in one sense – when Lewis’s book revealed many of the secrets of his success, the response of many in baseball management insiders initially wasn’t to copy him but to ridicule him, ignoring the clue in Beane having less money than their teams yet regularly beating them. It’s a salutary tale about how the experienced experts who have been there, done that sometimes know far less than they think.
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